Mother Jones assesses the draconian Alabama anti-immigration law and finds “It’s just not right.”
Not too far outside Cullman, in an area known as Gold Ridge, I found Keith Smith’s farm, a compound of chicken coops and warehouses at the end of a descending gravel drive, with fields rolling beyond. The chicken houses were open, empty and quiet. A tractor crept across one field, and I could see a row of baseball caps and pale straw hats bobbing above the frame of a seed setter being towed behind it.
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Smith pulled up in a burly white pickup, trailed by a couple of collies, one with only one back leg, still hobbling at a pretty good clip. Smith’s size befits his truck, and as he got out and led me to his office, he moved slowly, with great effort, heeding a pain in his ankles. In addition to sweet potatoes, Smith grows greens and raises pullets for Tyson. He was one of the first farmers in Alabama to complain publicly about the impact of the state’s divisive anti-immigration bill, HB 56—a brave move, since doing so made him a potential target of the law, which criminalizes aiding or abetting undocumented immigrants in any way.
Smith’s problem, which he spelled out in a deep, marbled drawl, is textbook by now: There simply aren’t enough people in the United States legally who are willing or able or geographically situated to do the backbreaking work most farms have to offer, a truth that has become increasingly clear as farmers—first in Georgia, where legislation similar to HB 56 passed last year, and now in Alabama—have scrambled to fill the vacuum left by a labor force that evaporated overnight.
None of the farmers he knew were in favor of HB 56 as it stands, though “all of us would like to see an immigration law we can deal with.” He mentioned guest-worker programs, background checks, tracking numbers—the same strategies that some state Republican legislators have recommended. But the argument over immigration has long been one of reform versus enforcement, and in the case of HB 56, enforcement is emphasized to the extreme. “The way this bill is now,” Smith said, “if you have anything to do with them whatsoever, you’re breaking the law. If you see ’em and they’re hungry, or if they’re out here run over by an automobile layin’ in a ditch, and you help ’em, you’re breakin’ the law.” He swung to smash a fly on his desk and missed. “It’s just not right.”
The Diocese of Alabama and other church groups oppose the laws as they currently stand.